|The fingerstyle guitar instrumental is a tradition going back to the 19th century, when ladies sat in parlors playing semi-classical pieces like “Spanish Fandango” and “The Siege of Sebastopol.” In 1959 it was reinvented by American primitivist John Fahey, who blended the sounds of country-blues with his own weird harmonic vocabulary in his debut LP, Blind Joe Death. The next player in Fahey’s mold was Leo Kottke, a Georgia native whose celebrated 1969 LP on Fahey’s Takoma label, 6 and 12-String Guitar (also known as the “Armadillo record”), established him as a major steel-string guitar soloist—an almost impossible musical career to succeed at.|
Now 65, Kottke came to the Egg on Friday night for the first performance of a two-night run, and showed an appreciative crowd why he’s been able to pull it off for more than 40 years. He still plays very well, and his in-between song monologues are riotously funny. Today you can hear superior fingerpicking technicians—Lawrence Juber and Tommy Emmanuel, for example—but Kottke’s knack for writing unusual chord changes, his clean delivery, and his snappy rhythmic sense were reminders that fanciest isn’t always best.
Kottke, wearing an untucked brown shirt and jeans, walked onstage with a six-string under his arm and delivered a single extended set. He didn’t announce the names of many of his tunes, including the first, a Latin-flavored solo. Like Fahey’s technique, most of his playing is based on the alternate thumb-picking style, but for this tune his thumb and fingers maintained a Brazilian-sounding groove while he played a sparse, understated melody over it.
Then he rolled out his stage persona, the mentally disheveled survivor of a long, strange life on the road, and delivered hilarious spiels often as long as the songs that followed. Like the tale of the comatose patient who woke up after a decade and said, “I’m a redneck and damn proud of it.” Kottke put his finger over his lips. “Shhhh, go back to sleep,” he joked. Or when he looked around him and asked, “Where’s that fly?” claiming a certain fly followed him from gig to gig. He wondered if he should get a matchbox stocked with dried chicken skin and give the bug a home.
Kottke vocalized as well. Having famously described his singing in the Armadillo record’s liner notes as sounding like “goose farts on a muggy day,” his servicable baritone was far from flatulent when he responded to a request for “Louise,” a slide tune on 12-string.
Other highlights were Mississippi John Hurt’s “Corrina, Corrina,” and, in a nod to his mentor, John Fahey’s “Last Stream Engine Train.” In between his pickin’ and his shtickin’, Leo Kottke is still one of the best acoustic guitarists out there.